Skip to content

Trans Mountain pipeline: Is it worth the risk?

Concerns range from the threat of an oil spill to the impact of tanker traffic on wildlife

This is the second in a five-part series on the issues surrounding Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, investigating the history, science, Indigenous reaction, politics and economics of the controversial project. See the first story on the pipeline’s history here.

Environmental concerns are at the heart of opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project that has driven a political divide between B.C. and Alberta, and Ottawa, and have spawned two civil court actions aimed at halting the project.

It ranges from the threat of an oil spill in Burrard Inlet or along the pipeline route through B.C.’s Interior, to the impact of tanker traffic on an endangered marine species and sensitive coastal region, while doubling down on fossil fuel extraction of the Alberta oilsands project in the wake of growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Not surprisingly, public, corporate, political and scientific opinions span a spectrum of stark differences.

Is it worth the risk?

The answer to that question shapes the debate around the economic merits of the $7.4-billion Kinder Morgan project versus the potential negative environmental impacts. Proponents on both sides point to the final outcome of this highly controversial issue as a legacy for Canada’s future that will take on added historic perspective significance 20 to 30 years from now.

The strong objections from the environmental supporters are many and diverse, while the federal government touts this project as being economically vital, and the focus of unprecedented environment impact assessment.

Currently, two court cases pose the potential to delay or even derail the project, while the National Energy Board, responsible for the initial environment impact review, has since been stripped of those responsibilities for future energy projects by the Trudeau government.

The worst-case scenario – a massive oil spill at the Trans Mountain tank farm in Burnaby or in Vancouver’s harbour entrance to the Salish Sea – remains largely a potential calamity with unknown consequences, feeding the uncertainty felt by many if the pipeline expansion goes ahead.

Technology enhances safety

Kevin Hanna, director for the Centre of Environmental Assessment Research at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, says the pipelines of today are very different from those built in the 1950s and ’60s that criss-cross in the thousands across North America.

The pipeline trench construction, material, wrappings and coatings used to prevent leaks and other forms of damage have advanced significantly. Spills still happen, he acknowledges, but the technology and other mechanisms should ensure any incidents are minimal.

“It’s not to say major events don’t happen. Significant leaks can occur, but they are uncommon,” Hanna says. “The only way to eliminate the risk to the environment entirely is to not build it.”

Kevin Hanna, director for the Centre of Environmental Assessment Research at UBC Okanagan. (Berry Gerding/Black Press Media)

He breaks down the debate into two components that affect British Columbians depending on where they live.

One aspect is the pipeline transfer of the heavy crude bitumen extracted from the Alberta oilsands to Trans Mountain’s tank farm storage facility in Burnaby, and the other is the potential impact on West Coast marine life and shoreline by the increased tanker traffic and potential for a spill.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how bitumen reacts to salt or fresh water and how a spill can be cleaned up, so it’s important to understand the uncertainties or unknowns around that,” Hanna says.

“But generally, most tanker related spillage occurs during loading and off-loading, which would be of most concern to Vancouver residents. The global shipping safety record of tankers over the last decade has been pretty good.

“Nobody wants to lose a load of oil, as that means a lot of revenue is lost and that’s not good for them.

“As for managing the pipeline itself, major incidents in Canada are very rare. Doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t happen, it just means vigorous oversight is required for how the pipeline is operated and maintained over its lifespan.”

Trans Mountain is twinning an existing pipeline, he adds, meaning for the most part it follows an already established path.

Hanna calls the debate a proxy war within Canada for moving away from dependence on fossil fuels to cleaner energy, and the challenge of how to face fossil fuels’ impact on climate change.

“At the end of the day, Trans Mountain doesn’t operate a refinery, they operate a pipeline. They are trying to move a product from Point A to Point B. The question is does it have a financial future when other countries are shifting to new energy sources, like electricity, wind and solar?”

Hanna sees a risk in the federal government being drawn into financially supporting the pipeline – an investment that some feel would be better spent developing opportunities to adapt to changing energy need shifts.

“You are talking about something that is going to cost a lot of money at the end of the day and may turn out in 10 or 25 years to be unneeded. That becomes difficult to measure and quantify for investors and money lenders as it is for investing taxpayer dollars.”

Measuring potential hazards

Potentially at harm from a major coastal spill are southern resident killer whales – listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and considered an endangered species in Canada.

Called “the Orcas of the Salish Sea,” only 76 currently exist within B.C.’s coastal waters with a 70-per-cent pregnancy failure rate over the last decade.

The killer whales are an integral aspect of a consolidated lawsuit against the project, filed by seven First Nations applicants, the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Living Oceans Society.

READ MORE: B.C. communities await marine spill compensation years after incidents

The plaintiffs claim the NEB’s approval process was flawed and First Nations weren’t adequately consulted. The arguments have been heard in the case and a decision is pending, likely within the next six to eight months.

Misty McDuffee, wild salmon program director for Raincoast, says the pipeline endangers what is left of the orcas on two levels.

The first is the expanded pipeline through B.C.’s Interior, in particular the Thompson watershed, which is home to habitat and migration routes for chinook salmon, the diet staple for orcas on the West Coast.

The steelhead population has already been listed as endangered and now they are looking at the same listing for chinook.

“And the new pipeline would cut right through many of those watershed tributaries,” McDuffee says.

Endangered killer whales. (Submitted)

Often overlooked, she adds, are the realities of increased tanker traffic in Vancouver harbour on endangered killer whales.

“Even if nothing bad happened, there are no spills and everything works exactly according to plan, there is still the issue of increased tanker traffic,” she says.

“It raises the chance of these killer whales being hit by a larger vessel or the noise they create, disturbing their feeding habits. The southern killer whales rely on sound to detect fish and communicate with each other, just like we rely on eyesight.”

The human element

Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, says technology-created safeguards to prevent a pipeline environment disaster are always modified by human behaviour – bad decisions made in key moments.

“Human error can trump every safeguard measure possible. When an instrument raises a problem, sometimes it is not believed by the operators,” Wristen says.

She points to the reaction decision-making concerning Trans Mountain’s Burnaby tank farm in 2009, when 200,000 litres of crude oil spilled from a storage tank, as well as the Michigan spill of hundreds of thousands of litres of crude from an Enbridge pipeline in 2010 near the Kalamazoo River.

Oil tanker approaches Westridge Terminal in Burnaby, where TransMountain pipeline has delivered crude oil and refined fuels since the 1950s. (Kinder Morgan Canada)

The distance between the spill and the response teams, as well as the dissipation of intial toxic gas, can limit a quick response. The toxic chemicals used to neutralize spills can often pose equally harmful hazards for marine life.

“What evidence we have indicates that the cleaning agents available to mediate a bitumen oil spill lose their effectiveness after 48 hours,” Wristen says. “You placate the public concern by doing something, but all you are really doing is adding more equally dangerous chemicals into the environment.”

The David Suzuki Foundation carrired out disaster model scenaroes to see what kind of damage a spill would have.

“What is so amazing is how the wind and currents can spread an oil spill out in a matter of days,” says Jay Ritchlin, the foundation’s director general, Western Canada.

“A spill in Burrard Inlet could see remnants end up everywhere from Salt Spring Island to up Indian Arm depending on the time of year. The ability on how to clean up something like that is still not there.”

Pipeline need defended

The Trans Mountain expansion project is the most thoroughly reviewed project in Canadian regulatory history, according to the company.

“It has undergone unprecedented scrutiny for the last six years and set a new standard for review of energy projects in our country,” Trans Mountain said in a statement to Black Press Media.

Current fossil fuel energy demands will not change over the next two or three decades, it said, citing the oil needs of China and India to serve their rapidly growing populations.

“Oil producers have made significant 15- to 20-year commitments that add up to roughly 80 per cent of the capacity in the expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline.”

READ MORE: B.C. ‘very disappointed’ by court decision to not hear Trans Mountain appeal

The company acknowledges that pipelines account for about one per cent of Canada’s greenhouse emissions, but maintain the expansion will produce a legacy of carbon reduction projects to minimize the environment impact.

Quenching our thirst for oil was one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s major arguments in support of the pipeline – that while renewable energy continues to develop, transition isn’t going to happen overnight.

Canada has supplied $3 billion annually, including government subsidies, for oil, gas and coal companies between 2013 and 2015, compared to $171 million for clean energy, according to data released in July 2017 by a coalition of environmental groups.

How dilbit differs from refined oil

Bitumen is a version of crude oil found in natural oilsands deposits such as in Alberta, the third largest petroleum reserve in the world. It’s the heaviest form of crude oil used today, a mixture of sand, water and oily bitumen.

Conventional oil can be pumped from underground deposits, then shipped by pipeline to refineries where it can be processed into gasoline, diesel and other fuels.

Bitumen is too thick to be pumped from the ground or through pipelines. Instead, the heavy, tar-like substance must be mined or extracted by injecting steam into the ground.

The extracted bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter and requires extra processing before it can be delivered to a refinery.

READ MORE: Oil protest a slippery slope for cities

Some oil sands producers use on-site upgrading facilities to turn the bitumen into synthetic crude, which is similar to conventional crude oil.

Other producers dilute the bitumen using either conventional light crude or a cocktail of natural gas liquids to create a diluted bitumen, referred to as dilbit, which has the consistency required to be pumped through pipelines.

The vast majority of the chemicals found in conventional oil are light enough to float but too heavy to burn off into the atmosphere.

Dilbit has very few of these mid-range compounds. Instead, the chemical elements tend to be either very light (the diluents) or very heavy (the bitumen).

Because bitumen makes up 50 to 70 per cent of the composition of dilbit, at least 50 per cent of the compounds of dilbit are likely to sink in the water, compared with less than 10 per cent of most conventional crude oils.

Does it sink or float?

Bitumen’s reaction to water remains up for debate.

Some believe it disappears below the water surface in 24 hours or less, others estimate it might float on the water surface for up to three weeks.

A federal government technical report, completed in 2013, found that because of glacial grit and plankton in the water, within three hours, half of the dilbit will drop to the bottom of the sea. There would be no established way to stop it and no way to clean it up.

READ MORE: Kinder Morgan grilled on dilbit spill risks, alternate sites

A 2012 study commissioned by Trans Mountain concluded after testing dilbit mixed with water in outdoor storage tanks for 10 days under simulated environmental conditions that all skimming devices were able to recover the spilled dilbit.

Non-mechanical spill countermeasures, such as burning off surface floating oil, chemical dispersants and shoreline cleaning agents, were found to be less effective within varying time degrees.

Limiting the science prospective is the relative absence of bitumen spills.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has supervised more than 8,000 spills since 1970, but the Michigan pipeline break in 2010 was unlike anything they’d ever faced.

In a report filed just nine days before that spill, the EPA warned the proprietary nature of the diluents found in dilbit could complicate cleanup efforts in an environment impact assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport Alberta dilbit across six U.S. states to refineries in Texas.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.


Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
Read more